You’ve likely seen projections, including one from this blogger, than Dallas can create as much as $25 million or more in cap space by restructuring some of their high-dollar veteran contracts. That sounds very attractive on the surface, especially for a team that has spent several years being forced into frugality by past spending sins. There is no question that Dallas will do some restructuring, but perhaps they need a little more balanced view than what others have suggested.
One player that is guaranteed to have his deal reworked, and rightly so, is left tackle Tyron Smith. He is still just 25-years-old and one of the best in the business; a fixture at his spot for as long as he’s healthy. Dallas will certainly move money on Smith’s contract and have absolutely no reason not to.
Beyond Smith there is at least one red flag on any of the remaining restructure candidates. Let’s look at those in more detail and see if the added cap room is worth the additional commitment and risk involved.
The next most likely to be restructured is defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford. He has five years left on a $45 million contract and is still just 26. The red flag on Crawford is that his performance dropped off in 2015 after getting the new deal. He had five sacks despite being the full-time starter. Comparatively, Henry Melton had five sacks in 2014 despite starting just three games and dealing with injuries. It was assumed that Crawford would blossom as the three-technique tackle in Rod Marinelli’s scheme and fell woefully short of expectations.
Dallas is likely going to bank on their original analysis of Crawford and hope that improvements at defensive end and in the secondary will open up his game. However, if they have any concerns about Crawford, restructuring his deal could only prolong the mistake. Next year he counts $9 million against the cap and only creates $6 million in dead money if released, which can be spread over two years. Dallas has a decent escape there if they want to preserve it, but I anticipate that they will double down on Crawford and focus on improving the talent around him.
Let’s now take a look at Dez Bryant’s contract. No sooner does he sign the big extension than does Bryant suffer an injury-plagued season. Turning 28 in November, Bryant’s physical style of play means he may not have the longevity of some receivers. Could Dallas be worried about still paying Dez franchise-player money if he can’t stay healthy? Do they want to preserve the option to cut ties if needed?
Dez will count about $16 million against Dallas’ cap in 2018 and 2019. As currently structured, Dallas can cut him with $8 million in dead money in 2018 and just $4 million in 2019, when he’ll be 30-years-old. I could see Dallas opting to leave Dez’s contract untouched this year so they can how well he bounces back next season. If he’s back to franchise form then they can use it to create space for the 2017 offseason. If not, then they’ve kept their options open.
Jason Witten has two years left on his deal. It’s hard to see a scenario where Dallas doesn’t let Witten play out that contract, so I could see them pushing all of his guaranteed money into 2017 to create about $4 million in space for this offseason. His age is a slight concern but Witten has been freakishly durable and the Cowboys likely won’t be worried about committing to him for two more seasons.
Sean Lee is an intriguing case. He has four years left on his deal and a lot of wiggle room to clear cap space. However, Lee’s awful history with injuries is a major deterrent for Dallas. Though he’s coming off a fabulous 2015 performance, a return of health problems for Lee could push Dallas to release him next offseason. They would only be liable for $3.9 million in dead money off of a $9.9 million cap hit, giving them significant savings and letting them move on at a key defensive position.
I think Dallas will take the same approach with Lee that I said with Dez, seeing how 2016 plays out before making any contract changes. If Lee can put together back-to-back seasons of good health and Pro Bowl play then the Cowboys will have a lot more confidence to pull the trigger on a restructure, but even then you couldn’t blame them for lingering hesitation.
Lastly, we have to take a look at Tony Romo’s contract. Romo is signed through 2019 and Jerry Jones is happy to tell you that they think Romo has many good years left in him. There’s no chance that he’ll back that up by redoing Romo’s deal, though, until they see how he comes back from the 2015 injuries.
Even as it stands Dallas is probably stuck with Romo’s contract until at least the 2018 offseason. At that point the dead money drops to just $8.9 million (compared to $19.6 million in 2017) and they can find a way to stomach that if needed. How will two more seasons affect Romo’s body, one that already seems to be breaking down? Dallas will have to find out the hard way and can’t afford to prolong the suffering.
Today’s Cowboys, with Jason Garrett, Stephen Jones, and Will McClay holding more influence than past staffs of Jerry Jones’, are more fiscally responsible and big picture oriented than in the past. A past front office probably jumps at the chance to clear all this money and go hard in free agency, looking to maximize the current window of opportunity. Given the age and health concerns of some of the players we just mentioned there is certainly temptation to go that route now.
My best projections are that we will see restructures on Tyron Smith, Tyrone Crawford, and Jason Witten. I’m on the fence about Dez Bryant and can really see them going either way. I wouldn’t expect it with Sean Lee and am entirely sure they won’t do anything with Romo.
Dallas has learned the hard way about mortgaging the future to try and win in the present. It worked in the 1990s but has cost them dearly at a few points since. They have the potential to make a smooth transition from the Romo-Witten Era to the next generation with a solid infrastructure. They need to leave themselves financially flexible to keep their young players around for the next quarterback whenever he takes over, or to keep the talent around Romo strong enough that perhaps he could pull of a late-career championship like we just saw from Peyton Manning and the Broncos.
No matter what the endgame is for Romo, Dallas should maintain the same financial philosophy; stay balanced and avoid as many long-term entanglements as you can. Some players, like Tyron Smith, are worth that kind of commitment. But how many times have we seen teams, and the Cowboys especially, burned by being overly loyal? There’s a reason that the Patriots stay in contention (aside from the cheating) and it’s because they never put loyalty to one player over their long-term goals and financial outlook.
The last few years make it seem that Dallas is on that course. The hard part, especially as desperation creeps in, is to stay on it.